Pressing is an essential part of sewing. If you’re a beginner, expect to spend about as much time at your ironing board as you do at your sewing machine.
And pressing isn’t done all at once after you've completed your item. You need to “press as you sew,” pressing each seam after it’s sewn, and always before crossing it with another seam.
Pressing as you sew will give your item that professional look you want. Not pressing as you sew will guarantee ending up with an item that looks very “homemade.”
And pressing is different from ironing. Ironing involves sliding your iron back and forth to remove wrinkles from fabric. Pressing involves applying pressure with your iron, mostly in an up and down motion, with the goal of shaping, creasing, or smoothing fabric. Another reason to press instead of iron is to avoid stretching your fabric, which ironing can cause.
To press, you need at least a steam iron and a sturdy ironing board. And there are lots of other helpful tools that can aid in pressing – especially with pressing shaped seams. See Pressing Tools for a list.
General Pressing Tips
Set up your iron and ironing board near your sewing area. It can be convenient to just leave your iron on during a sewing session instead of turning it on every time you need to press a seam. Use an iron temperature appropriate for your fabric. Refer to your fabric’s care instructions, or see Fabric Fibers for pressing recommendations for various fabrics. In addition, you can refer to the fabric guides many irons come labeled with on their temperature dials. Consider testing your iron on a swatch of your fabric first to make sure the temperature is correct. An iron temperature that’s too low won’t press you fabric sufficiently. An iron temperature that’s too high can scorch, melt, discolor, or flatten the surface of your fabric. Do most of your pressing on the wrong side of your fabric. For pressing the right side of your fabric, use a press cloth on top to prevent shine. Be careful not to press over pins or basting. You could melt the plastic heads of your pins or make impressions in your fabric that may be difficult to remove.
How to press a straight seam
After sewing your seam, lay your fabric piece on your ironing board and press the seam flat. Then turn your piece over and press the seam on the other side. This will set your stitches into your fabric and smooth the seam. Next, you have two options: You can press your seam allowances open. To do this, lay your fabric piece on your ironing board wrong side up and spread the seam allowances apart with your fingers. Then press the seam allowances flat with your iron. Turn your fabric piece over and press the seam on the right side (preferably with a press cloth on top). You may want to drape your seam over a seam roll (see Pressing Tools) instead of placing it directly on your ironing board. Sometimes, especially with thicker fabric, the edges of seam allowances can press ridges into the right side of fabric. The curved surface of a seam roll can prevent this. Or you can press your seam allowances to one side. Choose this option if your guide sheet instructs you to or if you plan to serge or overcast the seam allowances together. Place your fabric piece on your ironing board wrong side up, spread the two sides of your piece open, and press the seam allowances to one side. Then turn your fabric piece over and press the seam on the right side (preferably with a press cloth on top).
How to press a curved seam
Examples of curved seams: necklines, armholes, hip seams. After sewing your seam, place your fabric piece on your ironing board and press the seam flat on both sides as you did with your straight seam. If you plan to press your seam allowances open, you may need to clip them first to make them lie flat. If you plan to press your seam allowances to one side, you may need to trim them first to make them lie flat once your item is turned. After trimming or clipping your seam allowances, with your fabric wrong side up, spread the sides of your piece apart and lay the seam across a tailor’s ham (see Pressing Tools). Then turn your piece over, draping the seam across the tailor’s ham again, and press it on the right side (preferably with a press cloth on top).
How to press a pointed seam
To press pointed seams, such as the points of a shirt collar, use a point presser or tailor’s board (see Pressing Tools). After pressing the seam flat and trimming and clipping the seam allowances as needed, slip the pointed seam over one of the tools’ pointed surfaces and press.
How to press darts
First, lay the dart flat on your ironing board. Press the dart seam and the dart fold flat on both sides. Then, with the wrong side up, spread the layers of your fabric piece apart and drape the dart over a tailor’s ham (see Pressing Tools). Press vertical darts (like those in a skirt) toward the center of the garment. Press horizontal darts (like bust darts) downward. Use the tip of your iron to press the dart, pressing just up to the dart point. If you’re working with a bulky fabric or if your dart is very wide, cut the dart open and press the sides flat. For a wide dart, trim the seam allowance first, then press it open. Turn your fabric piece over and press the dart seam on the right side (preferably with a press cloth on top).
How to press a seam that will be enclosed
If a seam will be enclosed, like the seam in a waistband, cuff, or collar, grade and clip the seam if needed, then press the seam open. Turn your item right side out, then press the seam allowances together. You’ll get a flatter, nicer looking seam this way.
How to press napped fabrics
Whenever you can, steam napped fabrics like velvet instead of pressing them. Do this by just holding your iron over your fabric for a few seconds. If you must press your napped fabric, use a needle board or velvet board to keep from crushing the pile. To use, place your fabric face down on the needle board and lightly press the fabric on the wrong side. As an alternative to a needle board, you can press some napped fabrics face down on a thick terrycloth towel. You can also use a thick terrycloth towel to press other textured or embroidered fabrics.
While some fabrics need to be pressed with a dry iron, other fabrics press better with moisture. You can steam fabric by using the steam setting of your iron or you can steam fabric with a dampened press cloth. You may find that using a dampened press cloth gives you more control over how much steam is generated. You might also want to use a press cloth if you have a problem with your iron spitting water. Use a spray bottle to dampen the cloth, place it on top of your fabric piece, then press. Some fabrics, like cotton, are best pressed when slightly damp. You can spray your fabric lightly with water before pressing it (test first on a scrap to make sure the fabric won’t water spot), or you can dampen small areas of your fabric using a brush or a dauber. To make a dauber, take a small length of wool or cotton fabric, roll it up, and secure it with a rubber band. Dip your brush or dauber in water and dab it onto the area you want dampened.
When to finger press
When you finger press, you use the tips of your fingers to press your fabric instead of your iron. You may want to finger press a seam open before pressing it with your iron to make the task easier. Or you may choose to finger press a delicate or napped fabric that may be damaged if pressed with an iron.